News center
Comprehensive experience and advanced methodologies

PHOTOS: BonPOP Obon Celebration, Japantown San Francisco

Jan 12, 2024

Please try again

As a child, Laura Miyano celebrated Obon with her family in Sacramento County by wearing a pink kimono with red and black stripes, passed down by her mother. There were prayers, traditional songs, rehearsed dances and great uncles who drank whiskey and smoked cigars.

On Saturday, Miyano’s 12-year-old daughter Maile wore the same kimono, albeit at a slightly different Obon celebration in San Francisco’s Japantown known as BonPOP, which Miyano helped organize.

“Our Obon reminds me of the one from when I was a kid, but, you know, it’s a bunch of aunties,” Miyano laughed. “We were like, ‘Let’s get everyone involved and make it fun!’”

Under Japantown’s Peace Pagoda and a setting sun, Miyano, her family and a large crowd of community members honored the ancestors with dancing and singing, but also pop songs and a fashion contest that “remixed” traditional Japanese yukata with contemporary pieces like sneakers.

“We want young people to learn traditional dances and the meaning of Obon, but to put their own spin on it,” she said.

Under the stewardship of Susie Kagami, the Executive Director of KOHO SF, BonPOP aims to put a modern twist on the over 500-year-old Japanese holiday, when people all over Japan return to their familial villages to honor their ancestors. The hope is to reconnect young people with their culture by welcoming creative expression into an age-old tradition, says Kagami, who wore a floral yukata gathered above her knees — leather cowboy boots on full display.

“A lot of folks in the younger generation are starting to question their roots, and we should have a place for them to do that,” Kagami said.

As dancers and elders got dressed in their yukatas, Eryn Kimura, a KOHO advisory board member alongside Miyano, reflected on how a history of displacement has weighed heavily on the Bay Area’s Japanese American community.

“That piece is always going to be looming, that lack of self-determination and ownership over your own space,” Kimura said. “And there’s also joy and something special about folks coming together and having these cultural events to anchor and soundboard their identity.”

Born and raised in San Francisco, Kenny Okakagi, 27, got involved with BonPOP through his clothing boutique shop in the Japantown mall called Chameleon Vintage.

“With Japanese Incarceration and Urban Renewal, not a lot of us live in Japantown anymore,” said Okagaki, who now lives in Oakland. “This event that brings people back to Japantown — and brings in new people, too — is a really beautiful thing.”

More photos below.

More photos below.